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Health and Medicine

During A 1346 Siege, Mongols Catapulted Dead Plague Victims At Their Enemies

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMar 22 2022, 13:00 UTC
Catapult

Not the most dignified of funerals. Image credit: Mirko Kuzmanovic/shutterstock.com

There are many dignified ways you can deal with your remains after you die. Burial, for example, or aquamation. There are few as memorable, however, as having your diseased corpse catapulted at your enemies, as may have happened in 1346.

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A dispute between the Genoese and the Tartar-Mongols for the old city of Caffa had been going on some time, though that probably doesn't need explaining. You don't go from no dispute to flinging your dead at a city at the first sign of a quibble. The city had around 16,000 citizens and was an important spot in what is now Ukraine for trade in Eastern Europe. 

During one of several sieges of the city by the Tartar-Mongols, their army began to get sick with what would be known as the Black Death. The plague spread quickly amongst the men, and — according to a contemporary, though second-hand, source Gabriele de’ Mussi — started killing them in their thousands every day. Realizing that they were not going to win the siege with a dwindling number of soldiers, they abandoned hope of the siege working and instead focused on giving their fallen comrades a real Loony Tunes sendoff.

"They ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside," a translation of Mussi's account reads. "What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea."

"And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army," the account continues.

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"Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone. No one knew, or could discover, a means of defense. Thus almost everyone who had been in the East, or in the regions to the south and north, fell victim to sudden death after contracting this pestilential disease, as if struck by a lethal arrow which raised a tumor on their bodies."

According to a study by microbiologist Mark Wheelis on biological warfare at the siege of Caffa, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the account is a plausible one. He argues that there are two ways the disease could have entered the city at the time: small rodents that carried the disease and infected the soldiers got into the city, or, as the account suggests, flinging fallen comrades into the city via catapult.

The rat scenario he deems to be less plausible than the catapults. He points out that the siege infrastructure would have been much further away than rats are willing to venture, at tens of meters from their nests. Meanwhile, he believes that the idea they would believe the corpses would spread the disease was consistent with the view of disease at the time, and could have been an effective way for the army to deal with the bodies of the dead.

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Though he is skeptical that the tactic caused the spread of the plague further in Europe, and says that any conclusions based on the one (albeit trustworthy) source, Wheelis argues the attack is the best explanation for the rise in the plague in the city.

"His account of biological attack is plausible, consistent with the technology of the time, and it provides the best explanation of disease transmission into besieged Caffa," he wrote in the study. "This thus appears to be one of the first biological attacks recorded and among the most successful of all time."

It did not, however, win the city. Not that you'd want it when your first task would be to clean up your dead soldiers that had been hurled over the wall.

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